State House to take up vouchers, economic furloughs in schools

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HARRISBURG -- Republican State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola wants to see students in Pennsylvania's lowest-achieving school districts qualify for taxpayer-funded vouchers that would allow them to attend private schools.

State Sen. Mike Folmer, who's also a Republican, wants school boards to be able to operate like corporate boards and furlough teachers during tough economic times.

The state Senate has approved both measures, which are among the bills that supporters hope the state House will consider when lawmakers return here Monday.

If approved, the two measures could lead to fewer students and fewer teachers in public schools, some critics say.

Mr. Piccola, of Dauphin County, said last week that his voucher legislation, Senate Bill 1, is aimed at getting a better education for the bottom 5 percent of schools -- or what he termed the "worst of the worst" schools. He contends vouchers will "open up opportunities for students who don't have options."

He is supported by Gov. Tom Corbett, who'd like to see voucher legislation approved by Dec. 31. But it's unclear if that will occur, given the number of items on the House agenda.

The Senate voucher plan was approved in October. It says the lowest-income students in the 144 worst-performing schools would qualify for vouchers next fall. The vouchers would range from $5,800 to $13,900, depending on the state's share of funding for each district. Vouchers for Pittsburgh Public School students would be about $9,000. The voucher money would come from state aid given to the students' home school districts.

If the House and governor approve the Senate voucher legislation, family income among students in the targeted districts will be used to determine who qualifies for vouchers. Families with income between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level would be eligible for vouchers amounting to 75 percent of the state per-pupil spending. A family of four with an income of under $29,055 would qualify for full vouchers. Those with incomes between $29,055 and $41,338 would qualify for partial vouchers.

Mr. Folmer, of Lebanon County, is pushing Senate Bill 612, which would permit teacher layoffs for "economic reasons, as part of [a] plan to reduce or control school districts' costs." It requires that districts that lay off teachers for economic reasons lay off an equal number of administrators. Under current law, teachers can be laid off only if buildings are closed, there is a sharp drop in enrollment or when a district decides to eliminate courses or programs.

There is strong opposition to the voucher legislation among educators, school directors and teachers unions, which argue that it's unfair for private schools to receive state money without being held to the same accountability in the forms of standardized testing, financial audits and compliance with state open records and open meeting laws.

They also argue that it is unconstitutional for public money to go to religious schools. It's expected that much of the voucher money will be used by students to attend parochial schools.

"This is legislation that has no accountability for the people who are taking the money," said Sto-Rox superintendent Michael Panza. Students at Sto-Rox middle and elementary schools would qualify for vouchers for next fall under the Senate-approved legislation.

Because most of the eligible schools are in Philadelphia, many Western Pennsylvania school officials and some legislators contend the voucher legislation is a way to save the ailing Philadelphia School system.

But there are some Allegheny County schools on the bottom 5 percent list as well. In addition to Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg High School and middle school, Westinghouse and Oliver high schools in Pittsburgh, King, Northview Woolslair, Arlington, Murray, Stevens, Johnston and Fairless elementary schools and the Helen S. Faison Arts Academy in Pittsburgh, and Duquesne Consolidated School District would be eligible.

Reaction to the economic furlough bill is split, with some school directors and superintendents saying it will be necessary if state funds for public education continue to be cut. But others warn that furloughing teachers to balance a budget will lead to larger class sizes and lower-quality education.

"School boards are going to need to be able to furlough for economic reasons," said Shauna D'Alessandro, president of the West Jefferson Hills school board.

But Richard Livingston, president of the Clairton school board and a retired teacher, said: "It is not educationally sound to lay off teachers for economic reasons. We don't want to lay off teachers or cut programs."

Mr. Livingston is also concerned about the Senate voucher legislation, which would make Clairton elementary students eligible for vouchers in the fall if approved by the House and signed by the governor.

"Clairton is a district of 780 kids. If you take out students with vouchers, that is less money we have to maintain our buildings and programs," he said.

Wilkinsburg superintendent Archie Perrin said he welcomes the economic furlough legislation but said he would need an exception to the provision that he furlough administrators along with teachers. "We have already done that. We have a bare-bones administration," Mr. Perrin said.

As for vouchers, Mr. Perrin said he supports the concept of school choice but does not believe the playing field will be even between the public schools and the private schools that stand to receive voucher funding because of the lack of accountability. He also said students who leave struggling public school districts tend to be the better students, leaving behind the students with academic and behavior challenges.

"The public school must be here to educate everyone regardless of their backgrounds or challenges," Mr. Perrin said.

It's not just struggling districts that oppose vouchers. The boards of the Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon districts, among the wealthiest and highest-performing in the state, have approved resolutions opposing voucher legislation.

West Mifflin Area superintendent Daniel Castagna is a staunch opponent of school vouchers even though students in his district don't currently qualify for them under the Senate legislation. "I think it's fine for students to have choices, but why does the home school district have to pay for it?"

Mr. Castagna also said he believes if voucher legislation is approved in any form by the current Legislature, it eventually will be amended to include all districts. "I think future legislation down the road is going to include everyone," he said.

Mr. Castagna said he has both a professional and personal stance on the economic furlough bill. "As a superintendent, yes, it would make it easier for me to furlough teachers. Personally I think it is just another way for the state to attack teachers. Their ultimate goal with all of this legislation is to dismantle teachers unions," Mr. Castagna said. "They are putting the tools in the hands of local officials to attack the unions."

But supporters of Mr. Folmer's bill on economic layoffs say that with hard economic times and the fear that the governor will seek to further reduce the state's current $5.2 billion allotment for pre-kindergarten, elementary and secondary schools when he proposes his fiscal 2012-2013 budget in February, districts need the ability to furlough to balance their budgets.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, one of the state's major teacher unions, opposes vouchers, but it doesn't oppose the Folmer bill.

"We're neutral on the bill in its current form, but we would oppose any further amendments, particularly anything that would remove seniority as the primary fact determining economic furloughs," PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever said.

Mr. Perrin said he worries that the current legislative efforts will dismantle public education.

"What no one has considered is after all of these particular experiments have run their course and they don't work, then what? When Humpty Dumpty has fallen, what legislator will put it all back together again?"

Tom Barnes: or 717-623-1238. Mary Niederberger: ; 412-861-1512. First Published December 4, 2011 5:00 AM


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